February 10, 2006
TURIN, Italy (AP by Larry McShane)—It is always the question on everyone's mind leading up to the Olympics, long before a single medal is earned or a record shattered.
Who will light the Olympic flame?
Italian organizers, as officials traditionally do at each Olympics, remained tightlipped about the identity of the final torch bearer for Friday's opening ceremony at the Olympic Stadium. A crowd of 35,000 was expected to watch the event live, with an estimated 2 billion more tuning in worldwide.
Rumored torchbearers include a pair of Italian Olympic heroes: cross-country skier Stefania Belmondo and skier Alberto "La Bomba Tomba. Neither was shy in the run-up to the 2006 Games about their designs on the honor.
The ceremony promises an event filled with "Rhythm, Passion and Speed _ including a performance from the sublime Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti, and the promise of inline skaters with ridiculous helmets shooting six-foot red flames.
The official Turin Web site promises the fiery sight, dubbed the "Sparks of Passion, will evoke "the world of myths and, at the same time the look of cartoons, infecting the stadium public and television viewers all over the world.
Show producers did a rough rundown of the Olympic festivities on Thursday. Executive producer Marco Balich, who has worked in the past with U2 and Pink Floyd, said the show would demonstrate the "passionate way in which the Italians live life _ the way they drive, the way they dress.
Designer Giorgio Armani designed the costumes used for the protocol ceremony presenting the host country's red, green and white flag; supermodel Carla Bruni will carry the flag before it is raised above the stadium.[pagebreak]Other highlights: Fake cows on rollers share the stage with dancing trees in a tribute to the Alps and their farming culture. A recessed row of benches in the middle of the stage will allow athletes to stand front and center.
Olympians will enter in the traditional parade of nations, a segment lasting more than 30 minutes in which athletes from some 80 countries parade by.
But these Winter Games ceremonies feature no ice of any kind, not when temperatures in the 40s render outdoor surface unusable. Expect some snow _ or at least white-clad dancers sporting balloon-like giant bubbles.
The lighting of the Olympic flame, regardless of who gets involved, is always a highlight of the ceremony.
Four years ago, the members of the 1980 U.S. hockey gold medal team reunited to handle the honors. Japanese skating great Midori Ito, tears streaming down her face, ignited the flame at Nagano in 1998. The 1994 Lillehammer Games began with ski-jumper Stein Gruben sailing through the night sky, torch held high as the world watched.
In Atlanta in 1996, a trembling Muhammad Ali famously lit the torch.
Whatever happens, a replay of the last Winter Olympics held in Italy _ the 1956 games in Cortina _ is unlikely.
The opening ceremony crowd watched in disbelief as skater Guido Caroli tripped and fell while heading to light the Olympic flame.
He managed to keep the flame burning during his spill a half-century ago, and even enjoyed a role in getting this year's flame to Turin. Caroli accompanied skier Kristian Ghedina as he relayed the torch through Cortina in January.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press